Brush with fame: Artists from every corner of the world are starting to show and sell in Phoenix.
Brush with fame: Artists from every corner of the world are starting to show and sell in Phoenix.
Mike Maas

State of the Art

What began as a quiet gallery stroll is approaching full-blown street fair now that thousands of regulars clog Roosevelt Street on the first Friday of even the hottest Phoenix month. Walking a block can take strategy and patience, because the art isn't just in the crowded galleries anymore. Recently, countless enterprising types have joined the First Fridays party and still found places to display their work, even if it means showing canvases out of the backs of U-Haul trucks parked in dirt lots, or selling sketches from card tables set up along the sidewalks. Live music echoes from all directions, and along with art, you can browse vintage clothing, coffee mugs, magnets or jewelry.

Some of the art's not bad, some is pretty good. A lot of it's amateur schlock. But if you really want to know what's going on in the art scene in Phoenix, you'll have to skip Roosevelt and Grand Avenue for Grant Street, a dark, quiet stretch south of America West Arena, south of the railroad tracks, south of where most people roaming the streets of Phoenix dare -- or bother -- to go.

They will soon.

The lone art outpost on Grant Street is Bentley Projects -- an offshoot of the well-known Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale -- which opened a little more than a year ago. Bentley's had regular shows since last spring, but its discreet location keeps the gallery off the familiar downtown art radar. No matter; serious collectors will still find the place, where list prices for most works hover in the five- to six-figure range. As the city's new revitalization plan takes hold, Bentley may end up becoming a magnet for more galleries of its caliber.

Bentley's already drawing comparisons to galleries in New York's SoHo district, and not just because it's a converted warehouse space. Beyond its courtyard entryway, where large, abstract sculptures cast shadows on a smooth expanse of gravel, visitors encounter an enormous grid of muted paint swirls fleshing out a self-portrait of celebrated New York artist Chuck Close, whose work is often exhibited at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA. Further inside the cavernous warehouse, you can see Jun Kaneko's serene, Buddha-like cast bronze heads; John Nelson's witty panels depicting iconic objects, plants and animals; and ethereal floral paintings by Hiro Yokose.

No, Grant Street doesn't have the dynamic, over-the-top atmosphere of Roosevelt on a First Friday. But unlike most of its neighbors to the north, Bentley Projects is a grown-up. It has regular daytime business hours, so you could drop by on a random afternoon. It also has a branch of Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen Bookstore, and, soon, an Arcadia Farms cafe. While First Fridays often get more attention for colorful attendees than for the art, Bentley Projects is more of a quiet reminder that art in Phoenix should be taken seriously.

Across the country, art and artists have often led urban areas into revitalization, and at this defining moment for a culture-hungry city where so many people are banking on a downtown resurgence, it will take plenty of great art as well as a dynamic scene to make it thrive. If you go to the 17th annual Art Detour, Phoenix's weekendlong showcase of galleries and private art studios, you'll see plenty of evidence -- both in the quantity of the crowds and the quality of the art -- that this city is finally reaching critical mass.

The state of the art downtown has strengthened significantly in the past year, with skyrocketing attendance at First Fridays, growing crowds at Saturday After and Third Fridays, more art than ever (which is a good or bad thing, depending on whom you talk to), significant commitments from the city, and signs of life throughout the month, hinting that Phoenix is edging away from its sorry status as a commuter city and closer to finally creating a 24/7 culture.

"I'd love to see how it happened in other cities," says photographer Casey McKee, who left Phoenix for the excitement of Berlin but comes back several times a year. He wonders if Phoenix will eventually be walkable or have things going on around the clock. "Maybe this is where it's supposed to start."

Last March, as many as 25,000 people visited Phoenix art spaces during Art Detour, which includes the first Friday of the month along with the following Saturday and Sunday. Tell that to folks at some Scottsdale galleries, though, and don't be surprised to hear something like one employee's disdainful response to New Times: "Art Detour? Like, I don't even know when Art Detour is!"

Those people really don't know what they're missing.

Of course, that's not to say that every Phoenix art space is giving the established Scottsdale galleries a run for their money. The quality of the art on display at downtown Phoenix galleries does vary wildly, from sublimely sophisticated to ridiculously shoddy, even from one month to the next at the same space.

Among artists who started showing their work downtown before First Fridays caught on, there's a definite sense of nostalgia for earlier times -- meaning as recently as two or three years ago.

"In the old days, it was a lot more about the art," says artist Scot McKenzie, co-owner of .anti_space, a contemporary art and experimental music space on Madison Street. McKenzie used to be more of a music promoter, throwing raves and DJ events, but casually displayed artwork at local clubs. Still, he admits that hordes of people swarming downtown streets have had a good effect on the neighborhoods. "Grand Avenue before all those people came was Crackville," he says.

Jason Rudolph Peña, a painter who has a studio on McDowell Road and will be showing his saucy portraits of wide-eyed waifs at Mainstay Gallery during Art Detour, likens the recent atmosphere to a swap meet. "Galleries need to be a little more stern about who they let show. A few years ago, there was really good talent all the time," he says. "It's hard to sell here. And people who can afford it think it's too low. At the same time, I've had people tell me I'm selling out because I want to make money off of my art. So am I supposed to keep a dead-end job and just make art on the side?"

Casey McKee, who had a studio on Grand Avenue from 1999 until July 2003 (he had a local show last month but won't be showing during Art Detour), says he has mixed feelings about the popularity of First Fridays.

"It's great that people are coming down and that it's a big event, but the quality has gone way down. It used to be smaller. Then it seemed to explode when I left. Now, I think it's kids coming down to get free alcohol."

McKee adds that a number of good artists have stopped showing, and bandwagoneers have filled the void. "There's a mentality of, 'Oh, shit, it's Tuesday,'" he says, describing some who slap together a piece at the last minute, in anticipation of a First Friday opening. "You have a lot of artists who do quick pieces to sell for a little. There's not an incentive to do bigger work because it won't sell."

The frenetic scene downtown and many galleries' lack of regular business hours also interferes with sales, McKee says, so some artists end up doing exhibitions in Scottsdale. McKee himself started showing work there in 2002, at the Cultural Exchange Gallery, and recently had a solo show at the Larsen Gallery, also in Scottsdale. "It's nice with Bentley down here, but we need more mid- and upper-level galleries."

Recognizing that need herself, painter Lezli Goodwin -- who has exhibited at Scottsdale's Art One and Marshall Arts Gallery -- decided to start her own business. She opened Studio Hub, located on Central Avenue, in January 2004. So far, she's gotten a good response. "People with checkbooks are coming. And I want to make sales because I think the people doing the work should get paid," she says. "I wanted to make a New York-style gallery to offer artists the chance to do professional, creative solo shows. There aren't many opportunities for that here." Goodwin distinguishes her space from many downtown galleries by keeping regular business hours, promoting shows with full-color postcards, covering the costs of opening receptions instead of making artists pay for them, and providing insurance for the artwork.

Goodwin argues that overall, there's more good art because there's more art, period. "The best and worst thing about Phoenix is that anyone can show. But it's a fabulous breeding ground for the future. After about 10 shows, everybody's a lot better. But there's not enough for mid-career artists."

Some local artists who wrote off downtown as too much of a see-and-be-seen circuit are starting to reconsider.

For painter Sara Hubbs, showing her work at Hector Ruiz's three-month-old Chocolate Factory space on Grand Avenue has actually inspired her to come back to First Fridays. (Her paintings will be featured there through this month.) "Roosevelt Row used to be the meeting point. I have heard so much talk about Grand Avenue being like a SoHo, but never believed it because the quality wasn't there. I think that with the Chocolate Factory, the tide is turning." Hubbs mentions Roberta Hancock's new venture, the Gold Spot Gallery, as another exciting sign of progress: "It's a link between Roosevelt and Grand, and shows established artists as well as serious emerging artists."

"I think the quality of the art has gotten better," says Nan Ellin, associate professor of urban design at Arizona State University's College of Architecture and Urban Design, who took a couple of friends to First Friday during their visit from Los Angeles. "I had warned my friends -- I had prepared them for the worst. But they actually liked the art. And they noticed the lack of snobbery -- everybody wasn't dressed in black, and there was every age and ethnicity."

Along with a lack of snobbery comes a level of accessibility that you can't find in more gentrified art towns -- and artists aren't the only ones who benefit. Look at Lara Taubman, a writer for Shade magazine who had only organized a couple of student art shows before curating "A WarLike People," a show at monOrchid on Roosevelt Street that several arts professionals mentioned to New Times as noteworthy.

As an unknown, inexperienced curator attempting to raise funds for the exhibition, "I felt like a schmo off the street," Taubman says. Luckily, she had the support of museum directors Susan Krane, of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and Marilyn Zeitlin, of the ASU Art Museum.

Ultimately, after working on the show for more than a year, Taubman pulled it off with a boost from in-kind donations and her own financial resources. Still on display through March, it features a range of media, including photography, painting, film, and digital art from local, national and international artists. "None of it's blue-chip, but a lot of it's going to be," Taubman predicts.

New York-based digital artist Robert Hickman came to Phoenix to install one of his pieces in Taubman's exhibition, and stayed in town for the February opening. He was amazed at the turnout. "So rarely have I seen such attendance for an art venue. It was such a nice homegrown spirit -- all the people selling stuff on the sidewalk, and all the different kinds of people flooding the sidewalks -- not just hipsters," he says. "The galleries and work lacked the luster of what I'm accustomed to in New York, but I liked this and saw it as a positive. It reminded me of back in the day in my neighborhood -- Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- yet your scene seems to have way more backing and support from the people. It's not strictly an art ghetto thing, so to say."

Downtown Phoenix's openness to new contributors is unusual, says Ted Decker, a longtime player in the local art scene whose current title is manager of Special Museum Initiatives at ASU. For last year's Art Detour, he curated the "Respite" exhibition at monOrchid.

"In New York, it's, 'Get in line with a million-dollar check,'" Decker says. "Here, you can see your footprints. I feel like I've been able to make a difference."

If Phoenix is an art incubator, there's a lot of talent waiting to hatch. Decker's keeping his eye on a fresh crop of painters, including David Dauncey and James Angel, whose work will be on display this month at Art One - Downtown and Modified Arts, respectively. And best of all, young artists downtown are actively involved in their community. "All these people feel like they have a stake in something," he says.

That's not surprising, if you consider how much awareness the arts community stirred up with the city this past year. Last July, the Downtown Phoenix Arts Coalition (D-PAC) -- made up of members of the arts community, local residents, and small business owners -- published Downtown Voices: Creating a Sustainable Downtown, based on a meeting held in May. A manifesto for downtown revitalization, the document calls for nurturing the grassroots arts community, encouraging small, locally owned businesses, preserving historic properties, and protecting existing neighborhoods, among other issues.

ASU's Nan Ellin says that the activism really started three years ago, when downtown was a potential site for the Arizona Cardinals stadium, which could have wiped out many of the art spaces. "The threat of the stadium going in downtown had a silver lining -- it galvanized the artist community and local neighborhoods, and people became organized, became vocal. The powers that be started to hear those voices, and it was a great learning experience for them," she says.

Downtown Voices strongly influenced the City of Phoenix's Downtown Development Office in its creation of the new Phoenix Artist Storefront Pilot Program, currently accepting its first round of applications. With explicit goals of increasing the number of artist-owned galleries in the downtown core, eliminating blight, and improving the area's aesthetics, the program will give grants of $5,000 to $70,000 toward properties where at least 30 percent of the building space will be devoted to the arts or an arts-related business.

Also, the city's Office of Arts and Culture, partnering with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, just started offering Individual Artist Career Development grants, providing up to $1,000 for recipients to attend seminars and conferences, meet with consultants, study with mentors, or pursue another activity that will help them advance professionally.

Art Detour committee member Greg Esser calls the two new programs "important because they show that the city is willing to put money behind their commitment to the arts." Esser, co-founder of eye lounge and 515 galleries (among other downtown arts endeavors), recently stepped down as director of the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture's Public Art Program, and is now the Public Art Network manager for the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

Esser cites yet another assurance from the city, the December release of Downtown Phoenix: A Strategic Vision and Blueprint for the Future. It describes how the success of downtown's "Three Big Bets" -- Arizona State University, genomics, and high-tech industry clusters -- depends on "Phoenix's ability to deliver the 'small wonders' that will round out a vibrant, unique urban environment -- small-scale restaurants, neighborhood retail, informal arts and entertainment opportunities, street-life, public gathering places, and the like."

Geographically, the strategy is bounded by Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, Lincoln Street and Hance Park, covering a core of existing galleries. To foster a downtown arts and entertainment hub, the city spells out its priorities: increasing the presence of visual and performing arts, encouraging more artist housing and gallery and performance space, and finding ways to enhance the existing arts presence around Roosevelt Street and in the Warehouse District, where Bentley Projects, Studio LoDo, and several private artists' studios are only the pioneers of what will eventually become a new cultural magnet near America West Arena.

Nan Ellin says that she recently took a friend -- renowned architect James Wines, president of SITE in New York -- to the Warehouse District to visit Bentley Projects. "He was floored," she says. "He said this is the next SoHo. And he lives in SoHo!"

What downtown really needs now, Greg Esser says, is sustainable, ongoing culture, and one of the next steps toward that is the growth of Saturday After (afternoon gallery hours on the first Saturday of the month) and Third Fridays.

The art scene is thriving, and a fringe benefit is the explosion of live music venues downtown, since some of the spaces double as art galleries, or vice versa. To some, the music is almost making a bigger splash than the art. While Modified Arts has long been operating as both a gallery and concert venue on Roosevelt Street, many of its neighbors also host performances on First Fridays, from indie and punk bands on the outdoor stage at Holga's, and DJs on the porch at Fate, to acoustic singer-songwriters next to 515. And the MadCaPs still play garage rock from the back of a pickup truck that cruises the area.

Over on Grand Avenue, there's a bona fide music renaissance, where galleries even have their own stages and hold regular events throughout the month, including the Paper Heart, Four White Walls, the PHiX, and the Trunk Space. Occasionally, the Paisley Violin (recently relocated from Roosevelt), the Cone Gallery, Perihelion Arts and Icon Studio have music as well. Rounding out the all-month-long nightlife on Grand are two bars, the Bikini Lounge and Fat Cats. Even the Old Brickhouse and Alice Cooper'stown, both down on Jackson Street near Studio LoDo, have spiced up their concert schedules with art displays and special First Fridays events.

Retail will also be crucial in making downtown a more around-the-clock place, says artist Beatrice Moore, who owns several downtown properties where artists have created studios and galleries that are often open to the public only one day a month. "You need small retail to help create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. For some of these businesses to survive, they'll need to have something more than once a month," she says.

To that end, as current artist occupants leave their storefront studios in Moore's buildings, she says she will turn the spaces into retail, eventually keeping artist studios at the back of the properties. Also, Moore bought a 15,000-square-foot building at the intersection of Grand and McKinley, which she hopes to convert to mixed-use, small retail spaces and artist workshops. Since last April, she has been working to bring it up to code, and to get a historic designation as well as historic preservation funding.

Already, a number of new spots have cropped up near the galleries: Greta's Pet Boutique and the new public farmers' market on Central Avenue, as well as boutiques Stay Gold and MADE on Roosevelt. Coming later this summer, according to Artisan Homes' Chuck Kaye, the sold-out Artisan Village development at the intersection of Seventh Street and Roosevelt -- directly across from several art galleries -- will offer a variety of new street-level storefronts, including a photography studio, art gallery, specialty food store, real estate office, music store, specialty furniture store, and Tammie Coe Cakes, a 300-square-foot offshoot of the popular bakery at La Grande Orange near the Arcadia neighborhood.

Beyond the imminent store openings, there's more in the works: Esser says he will start programming readings, workshops, and even yoga classes at some of the galleries on Roosevelt, activating spaces that are currently dark most of the month.

But for now, this weekend, there's Art Detour -- and more than 150 venues featuring art and entertainment, everything from Bentley Projects to unnamed projects in the dirt lot across the street from Holga's artist housing project.

Perhaps the art is really in support of the events, instead of the events being in support of the art, says Wellington "Duke" Reiter, the dean of ASU's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. "I'm not sure that really matters, though," he says. "Other places, other times, and other venues will evolve. Right now, there are people on the street, and I'd almost take that first and the art second. That doesn't mean it will always be that way."

Reiter says this is the third time he's seen a city transformed, and that's what brought him here in 2003. "In New Orleans, I saw a complete transformation of the Warehouse District. Then I saw it in Boston," he says. "There's no doubt that we're at the cusp of a moment where the city's either going to go in the right direction or not. The planets are aligned, and if it doesn't happen here, it never will. But we don't know how this story ends."


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